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Human Rights in the Age of Obama

Ajamu Baraka is the executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 250 human rights and social justice organizations working to hold the United States accountable to international human rights standards. YES! Magazine board member Tanya Dawkins talked to him about housing, direct action, and why human rights are relevant during the recession.

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Tanya: We know that bringing this movement to scale requires engaging people who may be inspired by the possibilities but insecure about their capacity to have an impact or intimidated by the enormity of the task at hand. What would you say to someone like that?

Umoja VillageUmoja Village Photo Essay
Homeless residents of Miami-Dade county built their own village on the site of demolished low-income apartments. 

Ajamu: I would ask them, do you believe in social justice? In democracy? In the possibility of individual, community, and societal transformation? If you do, you are a human rights defender.

We say that for everyone who believes in the possibility of real change, we can be that much more than what we have been.

Tanya: You speak of possibilities that many don’t dare imagine. When has the human rights framework led to substantive improvement in the lives of everyday citizens?

Ajamu: We need only look back into the history of this country. The struggle for abolition of slavery was a human rights struggle. The struggle for women to be recognized as equal human beings and workers’ struggles for a more dignified existence, including the demands for an 8-hour workday and protections against inhumane working conditions, were human rights struggles. Lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals and transgendered people’s fight for dignity and equality are all are part of the struggle for human rights and human dignity.

It is no accident that the repression in the 1960s in the South led to the Alabama Christian Human Rights Coalition and the Human Rights Appeal, or that the themes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention were around human rights.

The human rights movement has always been a part of the advancement of civil rights and democracy here in this country. We say, “from civil rights back to human rights” because it has always been about human rights.

Tanya: One of the key challenges of building the movement for human rights is helping people to connect the dots between the freedoms and rights they now enjoy, and may take for granted, and the movement for human rights. Given all of the challenges and opportunities of this moment, how does the Network do this work?

Ajamu: The coordinating office in Atlanta facilitates processes by which groups working on a range of human rights issues can come together in order to concentrate their power and advance their issues and campaigns. There are various ways we support the work, but we are guided by the principle that the people who are most impacted by human rights violations need to be at the center of the work. We believe that we can only realize human rights when there are links between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and that the only way we’ll advance collective human rights is through building social movements.

This new human rights movement is a revolutionary movement that is advancing a new vision of society, one in which substantive equality is a possibility.

The human rights framework is an instrument that can help us all work together, recognizing that we’re not going to be able to advance any of our individual issues or concerns without a more critical look at some of the systemic elements that are impacting all of us.

Another central campaign we are supporting is the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, which includes the agenda we believe the Obama Administration needs to address. It includes the reestablishment of the Interagency Working Group, which will require that government agencies coordinate to ensure their practices are in line with the treaty obligations the U.S. has signed. We are also pushing for reinvigoration and expansion of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—with a civil and human rights mandate, it could be the national institution that is needed to ensure that US practices at every level of government is in line with human rights values and obligations.

The Campaign is also calling on the Obama Administration to create a program of action to respond to U.S. lapses in implementing CERD, and to address issues of continued racial oppression in the United States.

There will be many challenges over the next few years as this economy continues to be transformed. This economy has already been earmarked to be a low wage economy, and the impact that will have on millions of people will be devastating.

We believe we have a real opportunity to advance demands for economic rights if we can show people that we have real opportunity for change at this point in history.

Tanya: How is today’s domestic human rights movement changing?

Ajamu: There is a popular conception of a human rights defender as a swashbuckling lawyer, steeped in international law and with privileged access to information and funding. But today’s struggle for human rights is not one that will be led by lawyers or advocates in Washington.

There has been a gradual shift to more democratic, grassroots, base-building approaches and organizations. People like Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Human Rights Campaign, Jaribu Hill, founder of Southern Human Rights Organizers, and grassroots community leaders across this country reflect the changing face of the domestic human rights movement.

This new human rights movement does not pretend to be impartial or apolitical. We recognize that the only way we can fully realize our human rights is as a consequence of a shift in power toward the poor and working class here in this country.  

We recognize that those kinds of changes are not going to take place in the absence of struggle or in the absence of demands.  

So we see this new human rights movement as a revolutionary movement that is advancing a new vision of society, one in which substantive equality is a possibility. Unequal access to power, resources, information, and leisure time are human contradictions that, though a real commitment to the dignity of humanity, we will one day see eliminated forever.

This is a struggle against oppression, but it is also a struggle for a new society and a new kind of world.


Tanya Dawkins, author photoAjamu BarakaTanya Dawkins interviewed Ajamu Baraka for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Tanya is executive director of the Global-Local Links Project, co-author of the 2009 U.S. Social Watch Report, Opportunity in Crisis: Navigating the Perfect Storm, and a YES! Magazine board member.

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